Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Happy Birthday Blog

Today my blog is one year old!

I started on November 25 last year, mostly with the aim of improving my chances of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Little did I realise that in 2006, the swimsuit section would have a much higher weighting. So some guy from India or somewhere won. Apparently he had a heads-up on the comp and had been preparing his bikini line since January. (Microlending! Blah. What's the good of that? Blue Dragon has a dog named Wheels - now THAT'S something to get excited about).

But still the blog has been worthwhile. Despite the occasional flippant / insulting / vitriolic post, I really have tried to present to the world some insight into what life is like for street kids in Vietnam. And it's been cool to see people from every corner of the world stopping by to read the blog.

Apart from celebrating the blog's birthday, this has been a huge week at Blue Dragon. Over the past few months, we've had an overcrowding problem in our residence for street kids. The idea of the residence is to provide a home for street kids who want to go back to school and have nowhere else to live. So we had a small house with six beds... but over time more and more children have needed a place to stay! At one point, we had 12 teenage boys there, and a young girl living with our chief psychologist because there were no other options. Not ideal!

We've been looking for funds to start a new, and larger house for some time. It's not just a building that we need, but staff to supervise 24 hours per day, plus food, supplies, equipment, furniture... And we figured that if we were going to do it, we should really do it properly.

So now the house is open, and 10 boys are living there. All are kids who were once street children, and are now no more. All go either to school or vocational training. All are on their way to a better life.

In the interests of their privacy, I won't post any photos. But I will thank Tony Foster and his law firm Freshfields; they have contributed the funds to rent the house and hire the staff. Without them - we'd have no new residence.

Another big contributor has been the local NGO Coup De Pouce, who have provided furniture and equipment; as have Padraic Fleming and Greet, two expat volunteers in Hanoi who raised some money through a photo exhibition. And finally, big thanks go to Vicki Teo in Singapore, who is providing a year's supply of hygiene products and a substantial quantity of food!

(I should point out that NONE of these people or groups asked for any publicity for their generosity - all the more reason for me to thank them).

So this is all big news. Meantime, we are preparing to launch a project next Wednesday, funded by the Irish Embassy... Busy times, but all with great results for the kids.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The APEC roadshow moves on

It's Saturday night - which means that APEC is just about over. Several million people are heaving a collective sigh of relief.

Not that APEC has gone badly - quite the opposite, so far as I can tell. Many people here were worried about road closures, traffic chaos, and business being disrupted... Not so. In fact, apart from the millions of APEC flags and a few fortresses-on-wheels with police convoys, it would be possible to not notice that some huge international event is taking place. Very smooth.

The only big visit to Blue Dragon as part of APEC was a media crew from Australia. We finally made our television debut! I've been receiving lots of encouraging emails since the segments went to air on each of the five major channels... Which reminds me, I should be answering some of those messages rather than writing this blog...

Anyway, the journos were looking for a story on "the little people" as opposed to the heads of state who normally receive all the attention. Very tastefully handled, I thought. And our kids LOVED playing up for the cameras.

This morning I went to the airport to see off Doug Everett, who has been working in our finance department (which only has one staff member, mind you - but it's still a department) on improving our accounting systems. Doug's been with us through Australian Business Volunteers, and has just been brilliant. Anyway, we were both worried that the trip to the airport might not be so simple - but again, not a problem at all.

Still, though, people will be glad it's all over. For the last two months, every discussion and plan has involve the phrase, "...after APEC." I've been trying to meet up with some friends from other charities for months, but every time we try to set a date all we can conclude is "after APEC."

So now it's "after APEC." I expect to see a rainbow shining through my window.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Bush in the Han

It’s APEC time!

Vietnam has been gearing up for APEC – the Asia-Pacific Economic Committee meeting – for over a year now. The streets have been cleaned, trucks banned from entering the capital city, floral displays elaborately created on major roadways.

Strangely, my invitation to join the official proceedings has not yet arrived in the mail – is that the postman coming now? – so I’m just going to be an innocent bystander to all of this kaffufle.

Kind of, anyway. There is some level of Blue Dragon involvement… A few of our older teens have jobs in the fine restuarants that have been called on to provide catering and functions. As far as I know, one of our guys, Vi, will be serving drinks at a major event this week. And, as far as I know (info is a bit difficult to come by, as you can imagine), there’s a good chance of George Bush and my own PM, John Howard, being there.

Now, I ain’t no fan of politics, and I’m not the kind to enjoy bowing before VIPs. But there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that kids who were once shoe shiners and on the receiving end of some pretty overt hostility (like this, for example) will be rubbing shoulders with people who, well, won’t let the likes of me anywhere near them.

I’m feeling like one very proud daddy, despite being locked out!

You didn't let that Brosowski guy in, did you?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Another happy customer

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a little boy named Loc.

The story is here, but in short, Loc turned up at Blue Dragon one day with extensive wounds and multiple illnesses. We knew nothing of his past or of what had happened to him.

Over the last few days, Loc has reached a turning point. His health is back to normal, although he still needs to put on some weight of course. He's been very happy being with us, but it's finally dawned on him that he has a family and that he really does need to be with them.

On Monday, our lawyer, Van, accompanied Loc back to his countryside and witnessed the most emotional reunion he has ever been a part of.

Loc has been away from home for two years.

For two years, his family has searched far and wide, and had all but given up hope of seeing their eldest son ever again.

But now he's back. Tears flowed for hours. The family tried to thank Van by giving him some money; a month's worth of their household income. Van was deeply moved, as Loc's family is extremely poor, and a month's income for them is not enough to live comfortably on. But still they wanted him to have it. Van thanked them, but begged them to spend the money on food and school fees for Loc instead.

Van got back to Hanoi last night at about 8pm; another long day on the road. But wow, what a worthwhile day.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Rich children good, poor children baaaaad

This is not a happy post.

To be specific, this is an angry, angry post.

If I was to give this blog a newspaper headline, it would be: "Proud, wealthy neighbours succeed in making small children cry - Whole street celebrates victory".

The story goes like this:

A 12 year old orphan, who lives in a house we rent, was playing on the street in the evening, as do all of the children who live in Hanoi. He kicked a plastic ball, which totally by accident hit a 15 year old girl who was carrying a bowl. The girl, a servant/slave of one of the wealthy smugglers on the street, dropped the bowl and, in doing so, cut her hand quite badly.

In response, every household on the street rushed out, screaming abuse - not only at the terrified orphan, but at every Blue Dragon child, staff member, and poor person who might have a distant association with us.

Their argument: These children have no families. Nobody wants them. We don't want them. We hate them. They all take drugs, steal, cheat, lie, and they probably all, that's right ALL, were involved in the conspiracy to shoot JFK.

Two dozen screaming, hysterical adults hurling abuse at an orphan who kicked a ball in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There were some stunning hypocricies. One woman, who demanded that we leave the street and never come back, has been asking us to help find her 19 year old son a job - and we have been helping! Even in the days after this mass outbreak of disgusting hysteria, she has STILL been asking when we will take her son for an interview.

These children are bad, they screamed. And what they didn't scream, but certainly meant, was: They are bad, and we are good. We are good because we are rich.

In talking to the kids a few hours after this incident, I asked them why they thought the local community had said what they did. One of these 'horrible, unwanted' children said to me: "They were angry. People say things they don't mean when they are angry."

I am sure that nobody else in the community could possibly have the sense, empathy, and forgiving nature of that child. So... who is better than who?

The next day, the servant's boss came to demand money, of course, and after that everyone and everything was back to normal. Just as though nothing had happened.

But our kids remember. And not only our kids, but also all of the poor families on our street who heard those words screamed maniacally - they are now totally clear on what the community thinks of them.

Last night, one of our youngest boys cried uncontrollably for over an hour. He misses his mother, he said. We didn't ask, but we know what he was thinking: Am I really unwanted? Does everybody really hate me so much?

The greatest irony of all is that the girl who was injured has not been given even a day off work. Her masters were furious that somebody in their household was injured - but apparently this is not out of concern for her well being. It seems that their rage stems from the fact that an orphan dared to damage their property. One of my staff went to see the girl today with some Betadine to try to stop an infection.

Her masters don't want to waste any money on medicine - after all, she's just poor trash from the countryside herself.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

On the road

It's been a full week!

On Monday I travelled to Bac Ninh, about 30kms out of Hanoi, with Marc Gold, whose organisation 100 Friends is sponsoring 20 rural children. This was Marc's first trip to Vietnam, so we spent some time looking around the countryside, meeting families and some of the school staff who Blue Dragon is working with.

Then on Wednesday, the Blue Dragon lawyer, Van, and I headed to Saigon to catch up with some important friends. So, for a few brief introductions...

This is Dung, who works as a cook in Saigon. Dung was one of the first street kids we worked with, back in late 2002 / early 2003, and he went on to study at KOTO, a vocational training restaurant for disadvantaged youth.

This is part of a family of two sisters and a brother; the 3 kids have been working on the street at night to pay for their school fees. Their parents also work on the street, and are determined to get their kids through school. The room they rent is tiny, barely big enough for 2 people. When we visited, there was no electricity.

This group of shoe shine boys has been travelling around Vietnam looking for the best shoe shine location... Ha Long Bay, Hanoi, Nha Trang, and now Saigon!

This is another Dung, who I first met when I was living in Saigon over 4 years. He and his mother live on the street; Dung has just recently left school to start a job delivering vegetables.

This is Hoang! He's an orphan who used to shine shoes in Hanoi, and now studies at college in Saigon to be a map maker.

As well as catching up with lots of kids, we visited a drug rehab center and met with some journalists who have been covering stories about internal trafficking. There's an article up at the moment - look here. It's in Vietnamese, but the photos are telling. This story is about the trafficking ring that takes children (maximum age 14) to Saigon from rural areas to work in garment factories.